Sixteenth Century Renaissance of World Music

  November 16, 2021   Read time 3 min
Sixteenth Century Renaissance of World Music
The most salient external feature of the 16th century is the sudden expansion in magnitude of the world of music, Composers of importance now number some hundreds - almost as many as in the 17th century - and they are scattered through all the leading countries.

Their known works count up into the thousands, chiefly designed for the church, but with a goodly proportion of secular compositions as well. The forms adopted are often extended and complex, so that into many single works went a large amount of effort and skill. In mere bulk of composition, then, the century is marked by an outburst of extraordinary artistic abundance. But other features command attention. The period was instinct with the spirit of enterprise. Musicians were not content to go on doing the" like of what had been done, but .must needs strike out new paths. Even those wedded to the old lines of ritual composition usually supplemented or modified the old methods, and the few ultra-conservatives were unable to hold a following. The area of strict counterpoint, for example, was widened in various ways by increasing the vocal forces and gathering them in contrasted choirs, by cunningly developing new beauties of close imitation (even by novel applications of the pure canon), by introducing more frequent harmonic passages as a foil for polyphony, by heightening the expressiveness of individual voice-parts and playing them off against each other more effectively, by reaching out after revolutionary extensions of the modes through chromatic tones, by expe-rimenting with alternating tonalities or modulations, and by adopting into serious writing rhythmic and accentual refinements from secular sources.

The practice of what was called' musica ficta' reached its climax inthis century. This was an instinctive recognition that chromatic modifications of the modes were not only permissible but necessary in certain situations, both for the better forming of the melodic phrases and for the smoother articulation of the harmonic drift. At first the insertion of irregular semitones was left to the singers' discretion without written mark, but ultimately the necessary sharps or flats were written above or in the staff. It is impossible to tell how early or how far this license was applied before 15°°, but from that date it became the subject of formal rules, especially in the formation of final or other cadences, in final chords (making them regularly major), in cases where the tritone or other objectionable intervals occurred either melodically or harmonically, and in the treatment of thirds and sixths in certain connections.
All regular composition had been for voices in chorus. It now began to be seen that the chorus of instrumental tones was equally valid. Instrumental writing branched off from vocal with' timidity, at first following the vocal type slavishly, but presently noting that every instrument capable of concerted effects has a genius of its own, so that a piece for organ, virginal or lute ought to be essentially diverse from one for a choir, since the tonal and mechanical elements are different. While instrumental styles for a time floundered helplessly in their search for proper forms or types, the future of such styles as a great department of musical art was prefigured in the lute-music, the organ-fantasias and the clavichord-dances of this experimental period.
Furthermore, the genuine harmonic idea of composition now disengaged itself from the purely contrapuntal, and the handling of tones in simultaneous masses or chords was felt to be of importance, The old notion had been that the individual voice in its progress was the unit of reference and that what chords were produced were incidental. Now it was felt that the chord as such was another unit and that such massive units might be joined in series, making the voice-part motion incidental to the harmonic sequence. Thus a revolution of procedure gradually came to pass - one that did not so much destroy or drive out the old as reveal a deeper principle with which the old might be associated without losing its own value.